Inner City Sound - 1981
Nick Cave got a tattoo when he was in Australia. A great big skull-and-crossbones, smack on his right bicep. Now, that may not be any big deal, but it was significant to me, because it seemed somehow symptomatic of the change the Birthday Party have undergone...
The Birthday Party are no longer boys next door: the Birthday Party have shed the last vesiges of false middle-class decency. Now they confront.
And this is only possible because in their 'liberation', the Birthday Party have become a better band.
Prayers on Fire is, perhaps, a coming-of-age. Their best record so far, it's also the best Australian album since the Saints' monumental (and criminally neglected) 'Prehisoric Sounds' (with very little in between-only Tactics' 'My Houdini' and Laughing Clowns mini-albums come to mind immediately), and one of the best albums released so far this year anywhere in the world.
Prayers on Fire makes even previous Birthday Party truimphs like 'Mr. Clarinet' seem positively pale.
The Birthday Party have loosened up. Stoicism gives way to swing.
With Prayers the Birthday Party have reached a pinnacle of near-primitivism. 'Zoo-Music Girl'-a virtual rewrite of the band's own, unrecordeed "Let's Talk About Art'-opens the album, and could almost stand as a manifesto:
Don't drag your orchestra into this thing
Rattle those sticks, rattle those sticks
The sound is beautiful, it's perfect
The sound of her young legs in stockings...
I want the noise of my Zoo-Music Girl...
Please let me die beneath her fists!
'Zoo-Music Girl' throbs with a sort of animal intensity that permeates all of Prayers on Fire, and will doubtless be likened to the 'tribalism' of Antmusic and Public Image's Flowers of Romance. To me, it's more like The Cramps.
The songwriting on Prayers is distributed among various Birthday Party boys-predominatly Nick Cave and Rowland Howard-and their friends, so there's diversity and inconsistency, though ultimately there's a cohesion of vision that's uniquely and collectively The Birthday Party's.
The excellent drumming of Phill Calvert and Tracy Pew's heaving bass lines create the space within which Cave, Howard and Mick Harvey play.
Cave's earlier obsession with religion has besome the Birthday Party's passion, with the grotesque, the evil, the primitive...the primal.
Cave is indeed Nick the Stripper; he yells and yelps, and on 'Yard' he even blows a squeaking sax.
'King Ink', like 'Yard' was perhaps inspired by the Stooges, and it has that air of menace. 'Dead Song' betrays the presence of Pere Ubu, as does 'Capers'.
Harvey's one composition, 'Just You and Me' is mock grim. 'Cry', 'Figure ??' and 'Dull Day' wouldn't be out of place on Hee-Haw. Rowland Howard wrote one song-the chilling 'Ho-Ho'- which is like a meeting of a sea-shanty and The Doors 'The End'.
'Nick the Stripper' (which has been released as a 12" single) is a definitive comment on the performer/audience relationship, and probaby the best song on the album, Play it back to back with The Teardrop Explodes 'Reward!'. Play it alone and try to resist..the sideshow atmosphere, Equal Local's horns, Rowland Howard's sprinking of guitar like so much broken glass...Prayers on Fire is like a rite.
For too long now, Australian music has met with ridicule and, worse, apathy in England. In Prayers on Fire The Birthday Party have made an album that is not only magnificent but has been rapturously recieved in England. Hopefully that will open the door for the Laughing Clowns, the Go Betweens, Equal Local...I could go on.
- Clinton Walker